A Metropolitan Police Sergeant injured after being assaulted during an anti-lockdown protest in Hyde Park earlier this year has told how she and colleagues had to police the march without protective riot kit.
Sgt Nikki O’Malley (pictured), who was left bloodied and bruised after being attacked by the protestors, was part of a session on policing protest which heard how there is a growing frustration among front line police officers that bosses are more concerned about “how it looks to have officers in riot kit, rather than the safety of the officers”.
It’s been hard enough for officers to keep on top of ever-changing legislation and rules over the course of the pandemic, giving officers an almost impossible task in deciding how and when protests may breach the regulations.
And while Sgt O’Malley said that was ‘confusing’ for her and her colleagues, not having any kit to deal with a protest which was always likely to turn violent raised even more questions, particularly among some of the less experienced officers on duty that day.
“I was a sergeant on the serial for the protests in Hyde Park. It was an anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-little bit of everything protest,” Nikki said.
“They had a walk-through central London, and then they would come back to Hyde Park. Unfortunately, there was a lot of alcohol involved. The crowd was bigger than had been anticipated.
“It was a sunny day. At the end, there was music being played, and there was a decision made higher up that we should go in, try to seize the equipment and encourage people to leave.
“So three serials, one Inspector and three Sergeants and six PCs, went in and literally as soon as we got into the middle of the crowd, we were attacked.
“We had no public order kit, just regular beat duty, Met vest and a hat. I was assaulted. I think a total of seven or eight of us were.
“There were a lot of questions from the PCs younger in service asking, ‘why weren’t we kitted up? We’ve got the kit; we’ve done the training. Why are we going into a public order situation?’”
Press images taken at the time show officers being pelted with bottles and other objects as protestors gathered in the central London park after what had been a largely peaceful march through the city.
Three people were arrested for offences, including assaulting police officers.
The strategy from senior police leaders had been initially to try and police the protests in a softer way, with officers not in riot kit, Nikki said, to make them look less confrontational and foster a more relaxed atmosphere
However, Nikki could see that the mood of the protest was beginning to sour, a worry she radioed in.
“It was probably hour nine or ten, but I’d personally put up on the radio that dynamics were changing, there was a lot of alcohol, there was cans, bottles,” she said.
“We were just trying to engage with people, and they were very verbally aggressive.
“I went to a debrief, and apparently those radio messages weren’t sent up higher to the people who make decisions about what we were wearing, so that wasn’t fed up.
“We weren’t kitted, but I know about half the public order officers were kitted out, and they were kept on reserve if something happened,” Nikki said.
“So I don’t know why they weren’t brought in, why we were sent in instead. I get starting off low-level.
“I get you can’t be fully kitted for every single thing, but there is a history with this group.
“I recognised some of them from a few months before, and most weekends in Hyde Park, it ended up not with that scale of violence, but there was violence, so the intel picture was there as well.
“I get you don’t use them [kitted officers] at the beginning because it was relatively peaceful,” Nikki added.
“But as the mood was changing, the sun was going down, there was more alcohol, I find it confusing that they weren’t brought forward, and maybe we were brought back to de-kit.”
“I’m aware of some work to recruit more younger, female officers, and I think some of the decisions made on that day don’t help recruiting and retaining because you don’t get any extra money for public order,” Nikki told conference delegates.
“It’s a skill, but with the new officers coming through and with people getting injured like that – when it kicks off, and people get hurt, a lot of officers are starting to ask themselves, ‘why am I doing this?
“There’s definitely a smaller pool of level two officers than when I was first on Borough 15 years ago, and that means when you are public order trained, you get used more. It’s a vicious circle, and people only really want to do it for a year or two.”
Despite the increasing pressure on public order trained officers and the apparent ramping up of intensity and violence against them from various protest groups, it’s a role Nikki won’t be giving it up just yet.
However, she’d like to see improvements made, including decisions being taken more proactively before officers get injured.
“I was level 2 when I first started my career. I was TSG level 1 for 11 years. I love public order. It’s not nice getting hurt, but it’s a sad reality that that’s always possible to happen,” she said.
“That’s in the training. Sitting on carriers is a laugh. It’s nice to get away from the day job sometimes, and you meet people from all around your BSU.
“You can build up other relationships and the camaraderie. I’ve still kept my ticket in for 17 years, so I’m still happy to do it.
“I would never criticise a Gold or Silver in charge. I think it’s the model that’s been set up – we’re scared to make pre-emptive decisions.
“We’ll wait and see if someone gets injured, a building gets damaged, and from my point of view, then we’ll do something.
“Ten or fifteen years ago, there was a bigger appetite to be pre-emptive. ‘We’re going to do this,’ ‘We’re going to cordon’, or we will get people in a style of dress.
“Maybe we need to educate the public that just because we’ve got public order kit doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s going to be a riot, there’s going to be violence, so when they do see us, they don’t react to what we’re wearing. But that’s a slow process that could take years.”
Better post-event debriefs to explain to PCs why certain decisions were made and to learn lessons for future protests also need to be considered.
It would be a chance to explain to officers the rationale behind the decisions made.
“[We need] better debriefs afterwards for PCs,” Nikki said.
“I do a lot of logging for Bronze Commanders, so I see the other side, but these brand new public order police officers have no idea of the bigger picture or what’s happening half a mile away.
“It could just be someone taking an hour a couple of days later, a week later, to say, ‘this is why we did this.
“It’ll instil confidence back because there’s nothing like getting blindly hurt and then nobody talking to you.”